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Huntington Beach High boys’ water polo takes control in Surf League

Huntington Beach High'sr Ryder Dodd takes a shot on goal against. Newport Harbor on Wednesday.
Huntington Beach’s Ryder Dodd takes a shot against Newport Harbor on Wednesday in a game won by the Oilers 17-11.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

The Newport Harbor High School boys’ water polo team has been the standard in the Sunset Conference over the last several years.

Coming into Wednesday’s Surf League match against Huntington Beach, the Sailors had won 19 straight league matches since 2016. At least one of them came in heartbreaking fashion for the Oilers.

“I’ll never forget that backhand,” Huntington Beach coach Sasa Branisavljevic said of 2017’s sudden-death loss, when the Sailors’ Makoto Kenney scored a spectacular “helicopter” backhand shot with three seconds left in regulation to force overtime. “Makoto Kenney, that’s right.”

The Oilers turned the tide in this unique three-week season, as the Dodd brothers combined to hang 10 on Newport Harbor and put Huntington Beach in the driver’s seat.

Freshman Ryder Dodd scored six goals and his senior brother Chase Dodd added four as the Oilers claimed a 17-11 win, moving them into outright first place in the Surf League.

Emerging sophomore left-hander Zach Bettino added three goals for Huntington Beach (2-0, 1-0 in league), which is aiming for its first league title since 2016. The teams play again in the league finale on March 19 at 4 p.m. at Newport Harbor.

Huntington Beach High goalie Gabriel Haddad blocks a shot on goal in away game vs. Newport Harbor on Wednesday.
Huntington Beach goalie Gabriel Haddad blocks a shot on goal in Wednesday’s game.
(Raul Roa/Staff Photographer)

With Wednesday’s win, the Oilers became the first Orange County team to beat Newport Harbor (3-1, 2-1) since Mater Dei in 2017. Chase Dodd said the constant counterattacking aided the Oilers’ cause.

“We only have six games this season, and we really want to make the most out of it,” said Dodd, who recently signed with UCLA and added two assists and two steals. “It’s my senior year, so it’s your last year to play [high school] water polo.”

Senior center Tyler Padua scored twice, while senior left-hander Ethan Crooks (two assists and a field block) and Ethan Spoon added goals for the winners. Goalkeeper Gabriel Haddad made 11 saves, including one on a penalty shot.

The Oilers never trailed and responded after Newport Harbor pulled within 9-8 on Sam Allen’s driving goal, assisted by Gage Verdegaal, with 4:34 remaining in the third quarter. Chase Dodd immediately got a steal and drew an exclusion, then scored a power-play goal assisted by Crooks.

Padua then drew another power play from center, and Ryder Dodd scored it to push the Oilers’ lead back to 11-8 after three quarters.

“The seniors led the team,” Branisavljevic said. “The few occasions where we felt scattered, we were able to snap out of the defensive mindset into a more open, attacking mindset.

“We were talking about that, because Newport pressed us up really hard, right, in transition. We saw that if we don’t break that early, that we’re going to have trouble getting the ball close to their goal. We had to remain in that offensive mindset.”

Newport Harbor's Ben Liechty takes a shot on goal under pressure.
Newport Harbor’s Ben Liechty takes a shot on goal under pressure.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Senior center Eli Liechty led the Sailors with four goals, while Verdegaal, Hunt and freshman Peter Castillo each scored twice each. Liechty drew three penalty shots in the first quarter alone, helping keep Newport Harbor close early.

“He’s a handful,” Newport Harbor coach Ross Sinclair said. “He’s the best center in high school for sure, hands down.”

Sinclair used Cooper Mathisrud, Alexander Altshuler, Micah Santoni and Castillo in goal, with Castillo scoring from the frontcourt with four seconds remaining in the match.

“This week is a long week for us,” said Sinclair, whose team beat rival Studio City Harvard-Westlake 9-6 on Monday.

“We had a long practice [Tuesday]. We’re just trying to get back in shape, to be honest. This is just an opportunity to play. It’s not a normal season ... I’m not trying to put too much stress on these guys right now. They’re going to play these three weeks and continue on into club season, and that’s our focus.”

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